In the 1974-75 season, Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels put together the best season of men’s basketball had had thus far — 24-5 with a trip to the NCAA tournament for the first time.
Alongside him was Dan Ayala. He had come to UNLV from Cal Poly Pomona, where he was the head coach of the men’s team, the season prior to serve as Tarkanian’s assistant. But in the 1975-76 season, Ayala was ready to return to the head coaching ranks, and UNLV had a second-year program in need of a leader — the Lady Rebels.
Ayala, who died Sept. 17 at the age of 82, went on to become one of the winningest coaches in UNLV history, compiling a 109-23 mark over five seasons at the help of the women’s program.
He took over from Barbara Quinn, the first-year interim coach, and was tasked with laying the groundwork for the future of women’s basketball in Las Vegas.
“I intend to build a good women’s basketball program that will be attractive to top players,” he said before the start of the season. “For the first time, we have full athletic scholarships available for women. Scholarships mean more opportunity and consequently more jobs.”
Scholarships were a necessary jumping-off point to attracting top talent, but they weren’t Ayala’s only tool in the box.
Liz Galloway, who played for the Lady Rebels from 1975-1978, was, along with teammate Debby Waddy-Rossow, a standout at Temple Junior College in Temple, Texas, when Ayala came calling.
“He won my mother over,” Galloway recalled. “To see your daughter go cross-country, he allayed her fears. He just talked about what we could do and what we could accomplish and how we would play.”
And Ayala could tout the exposure that playing in Las Vegas had. “I was just starstruck when we first got there,” Galloway said. “Lynn Swann was in the gym. Bill Cosby, we saw him. We went to a casino just to eat. I remember passing by a slot machine and seeing Redd Foxx — I'm not going to tell you that didn't have a big impact on us.
“But coach Ayala was the one. He was the charmer. He was the one who got us to believe in what he was trying to do.”
Ayala wasted no time. In his inaugural season, the team would go undefeated at home en route to a 26-5 mark. The former Tarkanian assistant would borrow philosophically from his former boss.
He wanted to implement the fast break with the Lady Rebels. And he needed a squad that was capable of running end-to-end to do it. Current women’s basketball coach Kathy Oliver learned that quickly after transferring from Cal State Fullerton to play for Ayala from 1979 to 1981
“When I came over, I thought I was good,” Oliver said. Ayala had set up two groups of runners: the fast down-and-back players and the perimeter players. “I was always a perimeter player, but he stuck me in with the other group of runners. I was really bothered by that. Finally, he put me back in the other group when he knew I could run. He just knew how to push buttons.”
In the 1977-78 season, the team jumped out with 15 straight wins, a 23-2 record with losses to Kansas State in the regular season, and to UCLA in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women regionals — one of four times Ayala took the team to the tournament.
It was success, and it was uncompromising. Janie Fincher, who had been an All-American at Murray Junior College, landed at UNLV in 1977 with her final year of eligibility. She had some adjustments to make.
“I only played half-court defense in high school,” Fincher said. “I can remember doing some of the defensive drills in Vegas that Ayala had us do and him telling me ‘You might be able to score, but until you play defense my way you're not getting off the bench.’ Well I'm 24 and All-American, but he didn't seem to care. I was glad. I learned a lot about defense. Then I emulated anything Liz Galloway did or told me, because she was one of the best defensive players I've ever played basketball with.”
Ayala left UNLV after the 1979-80 season, but he didn’t stray far from the Lady Rebels.
Oliver, who became the head coach at UCLA in 1993, found herself with the opportunity to come back to UNLV and take over the program as its first alumna in the top spot. She credits Ayala with working the phones behind the scenes to keep her name prominent on campus and in the community to help his one-time protégé return to Maryland Parkway.
“When I first got the job here, he was the first guy to say, ‘What do you need? I want to help you.’ We needed some video equipment, and he donated $10,000 to the Lady Rebels. He always was there for us. As much as he barked, he cared. That made such an impact on me. I was always going to make sure my players knew I cared. They're going to work hard for you because you care so much. And I always do.”